J Koebel recounts his extraordinary transformation from a life of drugs and addiction to a life of servanthood and leadership.
Listen to J. Koebel’s story. Then, consider sharing yours and be part of the Word of Life Project.
J Koebel recounts his extraordinary transformation from a life of drugs and addiction to a life of servanthood and leadership.
Listen to J. Koebel’s story. Then, consider sharing yours and be part of the Word of Life Project.
Following is a letter from Meredith to Beth Moore, a evangelical Christian author whose book “Praying God’s Word” describes homosexuality as a “deadly sexual assault of the evil one in our society” and proclaims that “God can indeed deliver you and anxiously awaits your full cooperation” while claiming that “every person I know who has been liberated from this lifestyle has described it as obsessive, controlling and increasingly absorbing … in a way only understood in the unseen world, a satanically induced web is associated with this particular yoke.”
Meredith wrote to Beth as a mother, as a Christian, and as someone who struggled to find a new perspective of God’s love through the love of her son.
I’m writing to you on National Coming Out Day. Although I’m not gay, I have a child who is, and I believe I owe it to him and others like him to tell them the truth in love.
The thing about that is this: You and I view that truth differently, and acting upon the truth that I’ve learned has saved his life.
I’d like to tell you a story.
Until 2009, I was a Christian who was also homophobic. One of my “claims to fame” was writing a letter to the editor of the Raleigh “News and Observer” decrying homosexuality, agreeing with the Book of Leviticus that it was THE abomination of abominations. I even received a heartfelt but what I considered misguided letter by a gay man the next town over, telling me that it was my kind of theology that so wounded the LGBT community; while his letter stung and gave me pause, I chalked it up to his being wrong. I’d been praying for a couple of years at that point for God to break my heart for the things that break His. I had a few ideas of maybe someone whom He could put on my path (like a poor person, for example), but God had bigger things in mind for my heart – much, much bigger (and closer to home) things. 2009 was the year my then-17 year old son came out to my husband and me after years of battling depression and suicidal thoughts. We’d had inklings all along, ever since he was about 3 years old, that he was just different. His interests, even then, were dressing up in his sister’s tutus, twirling around the room like a ballerina, and playing in my Tupperware. He would be neither distracted nor deterred from these things. We tried sports, but he cried on the field. He cried on ALL fields. We gave him Batman pajamas which he never wore. He had no interest in rough-housing or getting dirty. He begged to take dance, but we said no and made him sit through piano lessons. He did enjoy Boy Scouts, however, and he even went on to earn the rank of Eagle. He also had a deep interest in religion and a love for Jesus from a very early age. But when he confirmed to us what I’d been fearing for 14 years, I could not – would not – see this as the “thing” for which I’d prayed. Instead, I saw it as a moral failure, a lie, a rebellion, and an abandonment of who he really was. I wondered where my husband and I had gone wrong as parents. No thanks to James Dobson, we had been led to believe that our parenting was to blame somehow, but we didn’t fit the mold of those gay-making parents to which Dobson referred. What, then? Had we not prayed enough? Taken our son to church enough? Was the problem that we were in a mainline rather than in a non-denominational church? Should we have forced him to stick with soccer, or t-ball, or maybe thrown him into football? He had accepted Jesus into his heart at a young age: Was he too young? Did it not “take?” Was our son’s homosexuality the result of some sin in my life or the life of my husband? Was it due to his birth order – the third child born after 2 girls?
I could go on, but I won’t bore you with the details of those years of our examining any and every possibility of causation. I think you understand my point that there is nothing, nothing, nothing my husband and I either did or left undone that caused our son to be gay. He was loved, he was tended to, he was taught God’s Word, he was not abused, etc., etc., etc. For parents of gay children to hear other Christians say that it is their fault their child is gay is THE wound of wounds – and it’s the lie of lies. It’s right up there with the “choice” myth. If I thought I had some responsibility in turning a former straight person gay, I would have God-sized power, which neither I nor anyone else has. If I thought I’d left some “door” open in the life of my child which allowed Satan to have easy access, I’d not want to live another day. When you love, protect, provide for, pray over, pray with, encourage, discipline, and teach a child, you’ve done absolutely all the “right” you can do for that child. What would make someone believe that a parent who does these things could turn their child gay? And if a parent does not do these things, they still cannot turn their child gay; if that were true, there would be a lot more LGBT people in the world than there already are. There are hordes of abused, neglected children in this world – which is the real shame – but they are not gay because they are abused and neglected.
God used my son – and others like him – to break my heart so that more of Him could get in. After repeated face-in-the-carpet prayers of pleading, of bargaining, of begging, the Spirit led me to love. Just love. Love in the truth that my son is fearfully and wonderfully made. Love in the truth that he belongs to God. Love in the truth that God loves him just as he is. Love in the truth that his wholeness is born out of his living the truth of who he is: A gay Jesus-follower. Love in the truth that God has a place for him in His Kingdom. Love in the truth that God does not change sexual orientation in 99.9% of lives; if He did, Exodus would not have shut its doors, and Alan Chambers, himself still gay, would not have penned a book about the dangers of reparative therapy.
There are many who have entered this conversation with love, compassion, and grace: Pastor Stan Mitchell, Pastor Danillo Cortez, Pastor Ken Wilson, Pastor John Pavlovitz are a handful of those who, after careful, meticulous study of God’s Word, after hours and hours of prayer, and after “doing life” alongside LGBT people have changed their positions. They would rather be “wrong” about this than be “wrong” about love and acceptance. They would rather tell God on the Last Day that they are guilty of loving too much than barring the doors and loving too little. They would rather embrace than enforce. I and over 600 Christian moms who are members of a private Facebook group stand with these courageous pastors. Many of us have read all your books and participated in all your studies. All of us are grieved to know, for example, that the Sodom story is taught in a such way to make it about homosexuality rather than (when viewed in context) taught the truth that it is about same-sex gang rape and arrogance, greed, and inhospitality as outlined in Ezekiel 16:49-50.
Jesus said, “You will know them by their fruit.” When LGBT people know that they are loved and accepted without the pressure to change what, in reality, cannot be changed, they are free to live for Jesus. Every single LGBT Jesus follower I know has an extra “something” that the rest of us don’t have, and the bulk of that is deep empathy for The Other. Imagine trying to live for Christ with the burden of also trying to change something inborn that cannot be changed and something that man, not God, has placed on your back like a two-ton weight. No wonder so many LGBT youth commit suicide. The message the evangelical community has been delivering for years is not God’s message, nor is it the Gospel – it’s legalism. I thank God every day that He, alone, knows all the backstories and, as such, is the only One Who can judge rightly. It’s difficult enough for us to love God and love others without the added burden of trying to determine who’s “in” and who’s “out.”
Science is on its way to being a friend to the LGBT community. Epigenetics is in its infancy but is already revealing some stunning discoveries about “switches” that have the capability to turn genes off and on as they are related to diseases and also to same-sex attraction. I believe that God is the “Who,” but science is the “how.” Sexuality is complex, and homosexuality is but one variant of a spectrum that no one fully comprehends – at least not yet.
As a child, my son had a sweet disposition, a kind heart, a compassionate spirit, a consuming love for Jesus, and a fascination for all things sparkly. The same holds true today. He, and others like him, have been my greatest teachers.
Please consider that you may be wrong about homosexuality, just as I’m open to the possibility that I may be wrong. Please hold your views before the God of creation and ask if there is anything else He needs to show you, and I promise to do the same.
Your sister in Christ,
Reposted with permission from Serendipitydodah
Embedded in Memory vs. Etched in Stone
This is the second is a series of posts exploring why Jesus used stories to convey his message and the implications for us. If you missed the first installment, you can read it here.
We are ancient creatures. We carry in our DNA the histories of our ancestors. We carry their stories as archetypes buried deep in our psyches.
Back in the day — and I mean way back when papyrus was hard to come by — the best sellers were packaged and sold in something called the Oral Tradition. People told stories and sang songs to convey significant histories and truths from one generation to the other. While we have moved on from parchment to paper and now iPads, the story still serves as an effective vessel for carrying the truths found in our hopes, dreams, disappointments, triumphs and failures.
If you ask me to recite the 10 Commandments, I will still struggle to name them all … there’s always that one or two that seem to evade me when put on the spot. Go ahead, try it. I’ll wait.
Now, tell me a story about a son who takes his father’s inheritance and blows it on living the good life only to find himself returning in shame and humiliation to ask for help, and I will remember and recall it forever because it is a story that resonates with my experiences, a story that calls me to connect with the characters. I put myself in their place to understand what they must be feeling: the prodigal son, the father, and the older son. I am invited into their shame, joy, and jealousy through my own experiences. I see myself and my humanity through them.
These stories and their truths tap into something both individual and universal — they share a communal experience with us while inviting us to bring our unique experiences to the story for a richer, more meaningful understanding. Something so perfectly one thing and another, so uniquely me and universally all, so ancient and yet so contemporary sounds like the work of the divine to me.
The story and the truth it conveys are inextricably bound. You cannot separate one without both becoming pale impostors. Spin the story in a centrifuge to extract a simple moral and you have reduce the story and its truth to a one-dimensional perspective that cannot survive without its symbiotic relationship with the other.
Begin with “Once upon a time” or “Verily, I say to you” and you’ve unlocked some psychological code into the psyche where we keep the good stuff that’s meant to last. Sounds sort of sacramental, doesn’t it?
This is the first is a series of posts exploring why Jesus used stories to convey his message.
I have a friend who gets frustrated when discussing various interpretations or perspectives on a passage from scripture. “Just tell me what it means,” she said once, exasperated after a discussion about one of Jesus’ parables.
Such frustration is understandable, given that the one person who arguably has all the answers chose to tell stories rather than provide us with a black-and-white explanation. But why did he choose the medium of story to convey his message?
The power of story offers something beyond the straightforward rules, laws and commandments found elsewhere in the Bible. Stories offer us more meaning and more nuance as we delve into them. Their truths are often layered and surrounded by context bulging with significance. Stories invite us into their world by asking us to relate and find meaning using experiences from our own lives. This, I believe is why Jesus used parables so often to teach and why those stories continue to provide relevant lessons for us today.
Stories offer connections to characters, situations or actions that bridge our own experiences and help us understand ourselves and others better. They helps us unpack meaning from our own stories so that we might understand their meaning and significance. And once we have wrestled the truth from our stories, they become sacred experiences that help us better understand ourselves, our relationship to God and the divine.
Now back to the question: why did Jesus use stories? This deserves a deeper dive. So let’s explore some of the reasons in a little more detail. Today, we look at Concrete vs. Abstract language.
Concrete vs. Abstract
Don’t get me wrong, etching rules into stone tables has its place. But that is not how Jesus chose to convey his message. He could have just as easily written the stoneback sequel to the 10 Commandments to provide further instruction to how best to live a Godly life. But he didn’t. He came as the Word made flesh, and by doing so, he made the abstract real. And his teaching followed the same course.
Most often, Jesus turned to parables in response to a specific question like, “But who is my neighbor?” Now, to be honest, this approach would probably frustrate the Gehenna out of me if my children constantly responded to me asking, “Have you brushed your teeth?” with a story that required hermeneutical analysis and introspection. I’m sure some of the religious leaders of Jesus’ day felt likewise, and I guess that was his point.
So, rather than saying offering some abstract principle defining who your neighbor should be, Jesus turned to the rhetorical tool of the parable to draw a picture with words, describe a scene, introduce characters and put the play in action. These concrete details provide tangible aspects of life that we recognize and understand through our experience of the world.
We are forced to deal with the universal truths through the messy specificity of our messy world: robbers, beggars, lost coins, weeds, sons, fathers, servants and employers. People and things we know yet require us to look at them differently. They speak to the here and now, the situations and people we confront every day. And like the fruit of the tree, we must break the husk to find the seeds of truth so they might be planted in the experience of our own backyard to grow and reveal their wisdom to us.
Who would have remembered the point if Jesus had responded with an abstraction like, “Your neighbor is everyone,” or “Your neighbor is the person you despise, your enemy, the other”? He embodied the truth in the concrete details of a story, making the truth sticky so that it stays with you even after the specific words have faded.
Writer Andrew Solomon has spent his career telling stories of the hardships of others. Now he turns inward, bringing us into a childhood of adversity, while also spinning tales of the courageous people he’s met in the years since. In a moving, heartfelt and at times downright funny talk, Solomon gives a powerful call to action to forge meaning from our biggest struggles.
What stories of your life have helped forge your identity? Share yours here.
These are real things. They are tangible. When we hear these words, we equate them to an experience in our life. They mean something to us because we have physically felt them, have sat in their presence, and have been forced to partake of their bitterness.
These words remind us of moments that haunt with us. They are found in memories that either ruin us or define us. They can be crippling and they can bring us to a place where we question whether or not we are able to go on. They hurt us. Physically, emotionally, and spiritually hurt us. And then leave us feeling empty, alone, and vulnerable.
I will never forget the moment in my life where I felt the most pain. I will never forget where I was, what I was doing, and who I was with. I will never forget the blow that came with the news that I was receiving, and the moments, minutes, days, and months that passed afterwards.
I would wake up from dreams that everything was okay, only to have to remember that it wasn’t okay. I would lay in my bed for hours at a time. I would go in fits of rage and throw frames and flip tables and fall on the floor sobbing. I would get in fetal position while I was in the shower and just sob while the water hit my body. I would stare at the wall for hours and would have nothing to say. There was nothing to say. I was in pain. Not physical pain. No, physical pain would have been manageable. I was in emotional pain. I couldn’t make sense of what had happened, and I couldn’t understand how God could let it happen.
Why didn’t he warn me?
Why didn’t he stop this?
Why did he let him do this to me?
Why didn’t he love me enough to get me out of it?
At first, I was angry with God. I was enraged. I didn’t want to listen to everyone’s prayers and encouragements because I felt like it was absolute garbage. I would get mad at people when they tried to encourage me. I didn’t want hugs because I felt like they were forced sympathy, and I absolutely despise sympathy that is given out of some sort of compassionate obligation. I didn’t want to be asked how I was, because honestly, nobody was ready for the answer.
I’m depressed. I hate life. I want to give up. I can barely get out of bed. I don’t eat. I don’t sleep. I don’t know how to make it through today. I want to leave the church. And you. And him.
It took awhile for those moments to pass…but they did. And new moments came. This was a different kind of grief, though. The grief of regret.
To me, the grief of regret is the worst kind of grief. It comes when you feel as though your time has been wasted while you simply allowed it. The grief associated with regret puts a lot of blame on you. It’s incredibly tough to swallow and even tougher to get over. So how do you get over it?
Slowly. I mean, slowwwwwwwly. I finally got through it and finally forgave him and myself, but if we’re being honest, it took about a year. But I did it, and it was the strange sort of accomplishment.
Why am I writing this? Honestly, I don’t know. Maybe because I feel like honesty heals our hearts. Maybe because it’s a completely different side of me that people don’t generally see. Maybe because it was just on my mind, and I needed to get it on paper.
The reason doesn’t matter. But what does matter is that you know this:
The lie that you’re alone in life’s struggles is the greatest and most effective lie that Satan uses. If he can convince you that you are alone, he’ll be able to convince you that you can’t seek help. Who would understand? People will judge you. And we believe it, dangit, we believe it all the time. We think that nobody would understand. We think that people would judge us. We think that they would never see us the same again. So instead of seeking the help that we need, we sit and we stew in our pain and misery and convince ourselves to stay there. Some of us have been there for minutes or days, some for weeks, some for years. Decades, even. Some have watched their life go by, and some have died in that grief. Some have died from the grief.
But I had a different thing happen to me. I believe that I lived because of my grief. In my grief, and in the sorrow and the pain and every single emotion that is validly experienced, I grew. I learned. I remembered. And I moved forward. And because of that grief, I now know so much happiness.
Because the truth of the matter is, without grief, we don’t know happiness. Without dark, we don’t recognize light.
So what do I do when life stops? I pray. And I hate saying that because it sounds like a bandaid for a huge gaping gunshot wound, but I pray. And I say, “God, this sucks, and I can’t do it. So can you help me get through this?”
That’s my prayer.Nothing complicated. Nothing fancy. Just me talking to my creator. And he does help. Why? Because he loves me. Because he sees me. Because he values me and who I am. Because he knows who I will touch and what I will do and knows that he needs me strong.
And you know what? He loves you, too. He sees you in this season of pain, and he sees your heart in the moments of frustration. Don’t be afraid to come to him in honesty. Don’t be afraid to tell him how you feel. He’s a good father. He treasures your attention. He respects your privacy. He won’t turn you away.
Sometimes his answers take a long time to arrive, and that’s annoying. But don’t mistake his silence as abandonment. And don’t confuse his lengthy delivery as apathy. You are always on God’s mind. He’s always thinking about you.
But now comes the hard part- you need to actively work for yourself. You need to see yourself as important, as worthy, as ready to move on. You need to let go of the guilt, let go of the shame, and let go of the fear that comes with stepping back into the world. You need to see yourself as stronger in order to be stronger. Because right now, in this moment of pain that you’re experiencing, you are enough.
We are never stronger than when we ask for AND accept help.
You are not alone.
I’ll never forget the trouble, the utter lostness,
the taste of ashes, the poison I’ve swallowed.
I remember it all—oh, how well I remember—
the feeling of hitting the bottom.
But there’s one other thing I remember,
and remembering, I keep a grip on hope:
God’s loyal love couldn’t have run out,
his merciful love couldn’t have dried up.
They’re created new every morning.
How great your faithfulness!
I’m sticking with God (I say it over and over).
He’s all I’ve got left.
25-27 God proves to be good to the man who passionately waits,
to the woman who diligently seeks.
It’s a good thing to quietly hope,
quietly hope for help from God.
It’s a good thing when you’re young
to stick it out through the hard times.
When life is heavy and hard to take,
go off by yourself. Enter the silence.
Bow in prayer. Don’t ask questions:
Wait for hope to appear.
Don’t run from trouble. Take it full-face.
The “worst” is never the worst.
Why? Because the Master won’t ever
walk out and fail to return.
If he works severely, he also works tenderly.
His stockpiles of loyal love are immense.
He takes no pleasure in making life hard,
reposted with permission from WITHLEAH
You’re still alive
Oh do I deserve to be?
And is that the question? Oh
And if so, if so
“Alive,” Pearl Jam
I’m fascinated by Google Earth. Everything looks so nice and neat from a distance, but as you get closer and closer to the details you begin to see the messiness of where we really live. Not the bright blues and greens of a distant yonder, but the wilting daffodils by the mailbox, the old grill tucked away on the side of the house waiting to go to the landfill, the broken rail on the porch.
I feel the same about my past. On the whole, everything looks nice and neat and respectable. But there are parts of my past I would rather not call my own. In fact, I have actively avoided some episodes like the tousled hair morning after a one-night stand, moving on quickly in the brightness of a new day as if it never really happened.
But as much as I want to avoid the inevitable discomfort of making eye contact with my past, some of my experiences simply call me back and demand that I engage in a deeper dialogue to seek understanding and peace. Such is the case with my trip to New Orleans in 1994 when I went to visit a college friend and experience Mardi Gras.
It was the Saturday before Fat Tuesday, and the French Quarter in New Orleans must have looked like some science experiment from above. Eddies of motion swirled in random currents that started and stopped amid the mass of humanity flooding the streets. I had driven down from North Carolina with a friend to visit one of our former football teammates from college who relocated to Metairie, La. We were among thousands of people who had descended on New Orleans with masks, beads, and wild ambitions. Most of us good and drunk.
We had been making our way down Bourbon Street when I stopped to talk with a young woman who had inquired how she might obtain one of my cheap, plastic, pearl-like necklaces. The age-old Mardi Gras tradition of bartering to see if she would flash her breasts had begun.
We were well into our negotiations when her boyfriend appeared and began to take exception to the deal I was about to close. He and his two friends began encroaching on my personal space, which is saying something considering the tight quarters already required by the annoying physics of space and mass during Mardi Gras.
I stalled for time as I scanned the crowd for the faces of my friends. Nothing.
I turned my attention back to the guy who had just shoved me pretty hard. Talking my way out of this one wasn’t going to be an option. There were three of them, not including the young woman who was safely behind a wall of her male escorts now. The tea kettle pressure was humming just below the boiling pitch. The shit was about to get real, fast.
But a weird thing happens in times of desperation. The brain sends out a flare for emergency help. Even steeped in inebriation, my mind searched every corner for some useful information that might help. And then I saw something. The flare lit up the memory of a story from a friend who had been cornered during an altercation a couple years earlier. So, I seized on the idea like a man wielding an umbrella heading into a gunfight.
In my best “let’s-all-get-along” voice, I apologized again and explained I didn’t know she had a boyfriend. I suggested that everyone relax and have fun. “It’s Mardi Gras for heaven’s sake.”
As I’m talking, I slowly reached my arm around the boyfriend’s neck to emulate the camaraderie I was describing. Then, I looked once more into the crowd and saw one of my friends. Jeff, a former offensive tackle, stood about 6’3” and weighed in at about 250 lbs. He’s the type of person you wanted standing by you in such a situation.
The distance between us wasn’t great, but 15 feet takes awhile to cross when bodies are packed in the space between like the elevator of an office building at quitting time. With my eyes about the size of dinner plates, I frantically waved my free arm to invite him to get his ass over here. But I knew it was going to take too long.
The boyfriend didn’t appreciate the chummy gesture of putting my arm around his neck. He began to forcefully pull away. It was now or never. With my arm still slung around his neck, I pulled his head down and swung hard with an uppercut to where I thought his face should be.
It’s called a sucker punch – a morally reprehensible, cowardly and unredeemable approach to a fight. And it immediately ended his night of reverie.
In the sudden explosion of activity as people around us began to jump back out of the way, I found a crease between the bodies in front of me and ducked through it. I disappeared into the crowd.
Between the adrenaline and the alcohol flooding my bloodstream, I don’t remember the feeling of my fist slamming into his face. But I remember the blood. And then things began to get fuzzy.
Jeff finally caught up to me a few minutes later. “I think you broke his nose,” he said. “There was blood everywhere. As soon as I got there, you took off. I was left standing there with them cussin’ and shoutin’.”
“What did you do?” I asked.
“They said you were an asshole, and I told them that sometimes you get drunk and act crazy. Then, I told them I better go find you before you punched somebody else.”
“Is that your blood?” he asked.
I looked down and saw the blood that stained my hands, shirt and pants. “I don’t think so. It must be his.”
Several minutes later we finally located my other friend John, and the two girls he knew from high school whom he had invited to come with us to the French Quarter. We all entered a bar along Bourbon St. in search of a bathroom. I’d already been warned once (as in almost arrested) by one of New Orleans’ finest that urinating in the street wasn’t such a good idea.
The five of us had spent a couple hours pounding beers at John’s apartment before driving downtown. And on the way to the French Quarter, I had taken a few long, hard pulls from a bottle of bourbon before deciding to stand up through the moonroof of Jeff’s car to announce our arrival. That’s the state I was in before joining the world’s biggest party.
Of course, my first priority upon reaching our destination was to order the famous drink of New Orleans — the hurricane. This sweet, but deadly concoction is guaranteed to knock you on your ass with about 4 ounces of light and dark rum disguised with passionfruit and lime juice. The storm was already brewin’.
After the altercation, we were all ready to find some relief in the form of a bathroom. We waded through a nearby bar to find a long line of squirmy people waiting in line for the same thing. The men’s room had a trough for the line of drunks to piss in, so we finished much more quickly than our female counterparts. Having a little time on my hands and a bartender nearby, I decided to order another hurricane.
I don’t remember much after that.
I have a vague recollection of being escorted out to the street by Jeff after almost getting into another scrape inside the bar. And I remember deciding to strike out on my own. In full disclosure, I’m somewhat of a wanderer, especially after a few drinks. In college I was known to abandon my friends and walk home from a party or wander through a graveyard for no good reason. It is an inexplicable attraction to darkness that pulls me away like a gravitational force.
So, while others were distracted, I wandered off down the street. I left behind the only people I knew among a throng of thousands. I did not know the address of John’s apartment or how to get there. I was gone.
My next memory is waking up the following morning. It took me a minute or two to recognize what I was looking at when I opened my eyes and my dull consciousness started to slowly absorb the surroundings. I was lying on top of my gray sleeping bag on the floor of John’s apartment. The milky pink stuff on my sleeping bag, I realized, was a dried pool of my own vomit — signs of the hurricane’s destructive path. And I didn’t remember any of it.
What happened between the moments of consciousness that morning and the previous night is something I still have difficulty understanding or explaining. I was lost in a most real and terrifying way, and worse, I had no conscious awareness of the fact. Since I have no memory of the rest of the night, I have had to rely on the memory of others for what is still one of the most profound events of my life.
Apparently, at some point in the early morning hours, Jeff and the two girls decided to catch a cab back to the apartment after having no luck finding me. John stayed behind and headed back to the first bar we stopped at in hopes that I might show up. Jeff and the girls made their way out of the French Quarter and hailed a cab.
Several blocks down the road, Jeff casually glanced out the window and saw an unusual site in what looked to be a sketchy part of town. In a field about 40 yards away, a large man standing about 6’5” and weighing close to 300 lbs. was dragging the limp body of another man by the collar of his shirt.
Somehow, Jeff realized at a quick glance as the cab drove by that the limp body was mine. “That’s Paul! Stop the cab!”
The girls assumed he was kidding. “Yeah, right. Shut up, you’re drunk,” one of them said.
But Jeff was confident. “I’m serious. That’s Paul. Turn the cab around.”
The cab stopped and Jeff approached the much bigger man who was holding me by the collar.
“That’s Paul,” Jeff said. “We lost him. We’ve got to take him back to the apartment with us.”
The man acquiesced, and Jeff pulled me into the cab and saved my sorry ass from whatever unimaginable fate I was headed for.
Lost and then found.
Math was never my strong suit, but I’m guessing the odds of Jeff recognizing my limp body being dragged down a street well away from the thousands of people I had last been seen with and from about 40 yards through the blurred windowscape of the cab are infinitely small. The kind of infinitely small odds that people talk about when they talk about the Big Bang creating a planet in a galaxy that could sustain life as we know it today.
The weight and significance of the experience began to slowly seep into me as Jeff and I drove the 15 hours back to Greensboro, N.C. the following day. Most of the time I wasn’t driving was spent in the backseat of his old Mercedes diesel. I was laid out, hung-over and feeling intimately close to something bigger.
It is strange how sometimes we are only able to see the bigger picture and understand and draw meaning from an experience in retrospect. Despite how real, painful, joyful or numbing the experience, the close proximity doesn’t allow us the context to appreciate anything other than knowing something significant has occurred. It was years before I had enough distance to see the patterns and then decipher meaning from them.
On the ride back home, my body and my mind ached with longing. I drank a lot of water to address my body’s needs, and I started making a list of words that gave my mind some peace — simple words that had pleasing sounds when spoken. Rainbows, mud puddle, midnight, moon shadow, deliquescence. Somehow these words comforted my mind and my soul, which were still wrestling with the events from the weekend and their meaning.
There was nothing redeemable about my actions that night in New Orleans. I was a first-class fuck up in every possible way. Had I been arrested for any of my infractions that night, a judge would have rightly thrown the book at me. If, as Martin Luther King Jr., suggested, the arc of the universe bends toward justice, then I should have met whatever fate awaited me along the streets of New Orleans. That would have been justice.
I kept drinking. I pissed in the street. I broke someone’s nose. I walked away. I struck out on my own. I left my friends behind. I got lost among the masses.
But I was found. I was saved from that fate. I was returned to those who cared for me, those who made sure I didn’t drown in my own vomit.
That isn’t fair or just. It is grace.
Grace is a word born bloody and beautiful from the womb of experience. It is a grace I didn’t and don’t deserve. A grace that transforms and brings new life. When I wandered down the dark streets of my mind looking for an escape, God found me and brought me back. It was my own resurrection. I was found, and I was made new. Again and again.
My experience in New Orleans is how I understand the unconditional and transformative power of God’s love. Because salvation isn’t something we wait for in the next life. It is something we are offered and asked to live out today.
We are all recovering from something. We are broken in a million different ways. We carry our own secrets and pain and hide our scars from the world. We all wander our own dark streets and get lost among the multitudes hoping not to be found. We even die our own deaths. But God continually resurrects us and makes us new. When I don’t know how to love myself, God is still able to love me. I made it back. That’s grace, and it makes all the difference.
During the days after my trip to New Orleans, I could not fathom why I had been saved. Still today I struggle to understand God’s purpose for my life. It’s one of those frightening questions that I tend to avoid like looking directly at the sun. But I’ve learned that God’s purpose for us is one of those inescapable questions of identity. The question of identity can be just as intimidating, so it usually is more manageable to consider who am I this week, this month, this year, and then create the quiet space to reflect and listen for what that means now.
A good pastor friend once told me that when giving holy communion, St. Augustine used the words, “Behold what you are. Become what you receive.” Those words so beautifully capture the paradox of identity. We are exactly who God has made us to be. Behold, we are beautiful creations. Yet we must embrace that person and our gifts to live out God’s purpose for our life, to be the grace we have received. Some days that is harder than others.
Faith isn’t about absolutes or easy answers; it’s not about a life free of struggle or challenge. Life is still full of pain and joy, suffering and celebration. But having been lost, having walked down the dark streets and away from everything, I was able to find something, too. I found that I wasn’t alone. I was never alone. And maybe I needed to wander away to discover it.
I still tend to wander away from who I am called to be and what God is asking of me. Sometimes I just get sidetracked, sometimes I don’t find the space to listen, but other times, I’m more willful in my resistance. Face it, sometimes the things we are called to do are hard and painful and messy. Mostly they require us to look beyond ourselves, our routines, our to-do lists, our personal desires and our ambitions to help someone else. So God reminds us. Sometimes we just need some minor course corrections; other times we need something a little more dramatic to get our attention.
My prayer is that we open our eyes to see the grace God brings to us in a dried pool of vomit and the other ugly messes of our lives. That we might recognize the new life we have and the responsibility we now share. That just as God used someone to find, renew and build us, we might offer the same for someone else who may be wandering their own lonely streets, lost among the masses.
The festival of Mardi Gras grew out of the religious tradition as a pre-Lenten celebration. It is the proverbial last call before Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent, a six-week season of prayer, reflection, repentance, atonement and preparation for the resurrection of Easter Sunday.
Owning this story and my past was an important part of my own Lent, even before I understood and appreciated the historical and spiritual context of what it represented. The essence of Lent was embodied in my experience in the same way the Holy Spirit is embodied in the bread and wine of the Eucharist. By confronting that night and calling it mine, I also now own the extraordinary grace that comes with it. Each year, as Lent comes to a close and we approach Easter, I am reminded again that Christ has died. Christ has risen. Christ will come again.
And so must we.